Just in time for Yuletide, citizens in Maryville learned one person can make a difference. And, at this holiday season, the people of Maryville now know that a single, solitary citizen can fight city hall - and win - with a mere phone call to the mayor.
Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor broke a quarter-century of tradition Monday night when he followed the advice of an attorney who represents the city and removed the reading of the story of Christ's birth from the city's Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.
Legendary East Tennessee radio personality Walker Johnson had read from Luke, Chapter 2, for the past 22 years.
Taylor told the News Sentinel an unnamed woman called him and asked whether reading Scripture at the event violated the separation of church and state. Maryville public information officer Pam Arnett told me the woman wasn't aggressive or combative but characterized her call as an inquiry.
Arnett said Taylor refused to name the woman as she defended the city's decision.
Arnett said Taylor consulted with attorney Melanie Davis, a partner in the law firm that represents the city.
Davis said in a phone interview that a whole line of Supreme Court decisions led her to advise Taylor to drop Christ's story from the Christmas event.
"The government has to be neutral between believers and nonbelievers," Davis said.
"The underlying theme (from the Supreme Court) is that government is not supposed to endorse one religion over another."
J. Michael Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, disagrees with Davis' interpretation. "(Her ruling) was a knee-jerk reaction, and it is tragically incorrect," Johnson said in an interview. The Alliance Defense Fund is a conservative organization that defends religious liberty across America.
"Government officials shouldn't be self-censoring," said Johnson (no relation). "It's perfectly legitimate for government to engage in acknowledging this federal holiday. There's nothing unconstitutional about it."
Johnson cited the 1984 Supreme Court ruling in Lynch v. Donnelly that concerned a Nativity scene on municipal property. The court said, "The City, like the Congresses and Presidents, however, has principally taken note of a significant historical religious event long celebrated in the Western World. The creche in the display depicts the historical origins of this traditional event long recognized as a National Holiday."
Davis was well aware of the Lynch decision. "There have been a number of rulings since Lynch," Davis said. "A Nativity scene and reading from the Bible are two different things. When you have a city-sponsored event, (Scripture reading) looks like the city is endorsing the Christian Bible."
But Johnson highlighted another section of Lynch to defend Maryville's right to read the Christmas story.
"The display is sponsored by the City to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday," the court wrote. "These are legitimate secular purposes."
Johnson's argument seems sound - reading Luke, Chapter 2, does "depict the origins" of Christmas quite clearly and reveals the real reason to "celebrate the Holiday."
Another single, solitary citizen, Samuel David Duck, came to the Maryville event - which included carols with explicit references to Jesus' birth - and courageously stood against the raging cowardice of political correctness by reading Christ's story.
No word on whether the unnamed woman was there to observe her win in the culture war. But, truthfully, hers was a hollow victory.